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Three Rhapsodies


The later music of George Dyson is in a different way no less characteristically English than Howells’s, the main difference being that Dyson, though sympathetic to Vaughan Williams, remained in his own work practically untouched by folksong, plainsong and modality in general. Nor does he follow Elgar, but rather picks up where Parry and Stanford left off. He had a greater flair for orchestration than either, and absorbed elements of chromatic harmony of primarily Delian provenance, but his concept of native Englishness in music was basically Parry’s; and the foundation of Parry’s Englishness was paradoxically German. He built on Brahms; and what Brahms was to Parry’s generation Strauss was to Dyson’s. This is particu­larly significant with regard to Dyson’s Three Rhapsodies, for in them the composer speaks consistently with so accomplished a German—more specifically Straussian—accent that no one would ever guess he was English.

There are no intimations of The Canterbury Pilgrims, Nebuchadnezzar, Quo Vadis, the Symphony in G and other works in which Dyson claims the English birthright which is his by legitimate inheritance. The Three Rhapsodies is in fact one of his earliest works, the only one which he allowed to be published. The Carnegie Collection of British Music issued the complete set in 1920 but they were actually composed between 1905 and 1912: the first in Rome in 1905 (Dyson was twenty-two), the second at Marlborough in 1912, the third at Osborne in 1908. In 1904 the Royal College of Music had elected Dyson to the Mendelssohn Scholarship, and he wanted to go to Leipzig to study. Stanford (Dyson’s tutor, as he was later to be Howells’s) would have none of it: ‘Go to Italy, me bhoy, and sit in the sun.’ Dyson did so, and the Three Rhapsodies were the happy result, all inspired by Dante. There is certainly a Mediterranean, if not specifically Italian, quality about the music, with its lyrical grace, bouts of dramatic vigour and overall richness of sonority: the Englishman speaks German with Italian inflections! It is all very youthful in spirit (but then so is the music Dyson wrote in old age), yet disci­plined as well as full-hearted: ‘rhapsody’ does not imply any careless disregard of formal rules and regulations but rather a maximum freedom of treatment within the Classically appointed bounds. (Those interested in the craft of composition would both enjoy and profit by making a detailed analysis of the first Rhapsody’s formal scheme).

Derivative the music may be, but it is non-academic, warming and beautiful and sings as music always should. The first movement (in sonata form, enclosed within a substantial prelude-and-postlude) illustrates a quotation from Paradiso XXIII, a dawn picture of birds awaiting the rising of the sun in the fresh morning air. The second, an elegy of almost sym­phonic proportions (it would sound well if transcribed for full strings) bears a motto from Inferno V, which is rendered by Chaucer so:

For of Fortunis sharp adversitë
The worstë kind of infortune is this,
A man to have been in prosperitë,
And it remember when it passid is.

The gloom is dispelled in an exuberant rondo-finale whose introduction provides the theme of the coda:

Sweet hue of eastern sapphire …
The radiant planet, that to love invites,
Made all the orient laugh.
Purgatorio 1 translated by Thomas Cary

In the first chapter of his book The Progress of Music, Dyson wondered whether the essentially creative spirit of our western music would ever return to the place where many of its abiding foundations had been laid, namely the Church. ‘Will she ever become the mother of all endeavour, the home of all sorts and conditions of artists … will the ethereal beauty of a string quartet secure a corner in one of her transepts?’. To that question this record can return the answer ‘yes’, in relation to one of Dyson’s own works and in a way which he would have been too modest to foresee.

from notes by Christopher Palmer ©


Howells: In Gloucestershire; Dyson: Three Rhapsodies
CDA66139Archive Service


No 1: Allegretto
Track 5 on CDA66139 [10'12] Archive Service
No 2: Lento
Track 6 on CDA66139 [9'24] Archive Service
No 3: Adagio – Allegretto
Track 7 on CDA66139 [8'46] Archive Service

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